Green MP Keith Locke today expressed concern that newly released Police instructions curtail the right to legitimate protest.
“The Police general instructions have emerged in the wake of a Police Complaints Authority ruling about the handling of pro-Tibetan demonstrations in 1999. The instructions go well beyond the existing law that Police have to uphold. The Crimes Act doesn’t contain laws against ‘humiliating’ people, nor does it put VIPs into a separate category with extra rights,” Mr Locke says.
“The instructions in the Police Manual of Best Practice now state that demonstrators may be removed out of sight of the VIP or be deliberately obstructed ‘if their behaviour is disorderly or is personally offensive and humiliating to the VIP.’ This violates the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression, which include the right to speech and behaviour that a VIP may well consider offensive,” Mr Locke says.
“Visiting Heads of State are often subject to loud and emotional protest, particularly when deemed to be responsible for the death or persecution of political dissenters. The right to vigorous protest ( and the fact that the VIPs hold public office ) means that there should be a higher bar to acceptable behaviour, not a lower bar.
“Police do not have the right to ‘deliberately obstruct’ protesters from the view of a VIP. We should not be turning our Police into the enforcement arm of the sensibilities of Chinese government officials, or any other visiting VIPs. Police have the right to arrest only if people are being offensive in terms of the law.
The Police also have no right to censor the political aspects of protest behaviour such as the wording of placards, or how a foreign flag is treated. The burning of a foreign flag should only be dealt with by Police if there is a genuine fire hazard – not because of the political symbolism involved, or because the Police think the visiting dignitary might find such political symbolism to be ‘offensive.’
“I was one of the complainants about the handling of the pro Tibet protests, at which the Police kept demonstrators out of sight of the Chinese President in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. I am glad we’ve finally got a result, eight years after the Police interviewed me,” Mr Locke says.
“Justice Lowell Goddard has ruled that the Wellington Police did breach the protesters’ rights on two occasions: firstly when the blocked protesters from view of the President’s motorcade, and stood on their flags; and secondly when they moved a protest blocks away from the Park Royal Hotel. It is clear that instructions issued by the Wellington Operational Commander, Inspector Stenhouse, to ‘make every effort to minimise the impact of protest’ was behind the restrictions imposed by Police on the ground.
“Now more than ever, the Police can and should expect close scrutiny as to whether their responses are out of proportion to the exercise of peaceful political dissent,” Mr Locke says.